Over a decade ago, as I was traveling through Germany, I picked up an audio magazine at a train station to try and kill some time. Leafing through the periodical, I happened upon a review that announced with not atypical Teutonic certainty that the “loudspeaker is the slave of the amplifier.” Somehow or other it’s a statement that has stuck in mind through the years. I’ve seen some highly touted solid-state amplifiers wilt under the strain of trying to drive inefficient loudspeakers that feature punishing loads. Sufficient power separates the men from the boys, as it were, unless you happen to be driving horn loudspeakers, which are a totally separate thing.
I have tended to fall into the camp of higher-power amplifiers. For several years I used a variety of Classé Omega amplifiers, in stereo and monoblock configurations. Some of the other bruisers that have landed on my doorstep are Boulder, VTL, and D’Agostino. They tend to have a lot of resolving power and throw expansive soundstages. The new German-made Accustic Arts Amp II Mk 3, priced at $20,900, does not quite fall into the luxuriously priced amplifier camp. But that is part of its charm as it raises the eternal question: How much performance can you deliver at a less than stratospheric price?
Power is not a problem with this hefty dual-mono amplifier, which is really meant to be run in balanced mode and delivers a robust 275 watts into 8 ohms and 450 into 4 ohms. The Amp II is also a nifty-looking piece, both on the exterior and interior. Inside it’s packed with two heavy-duty transformers and 24 MOSFET output transistors that should be treated with respect (having been pressed into service to lug the amp up the stairs by my lonesome, I can attest that this is not a job for the timorous). This third generation of the Amp II occupies a special place in Accustic Arts’ history—its predecessor was one of the first components from the newly created company back in 1997, and was the product that put the company on the map. Ever since, the Amp II has been the core of the company’s line, which includes another stereo amplifier, two monoblock models, preamps, CD players, DACs, and cables. The Amp II, the owner’s manual assures us, is handmade. Based on the sound, I had no reason to doubt that assertion. Quite the contrary.
From the outset, the Amp II did a wonderful job of combining beauty and the beast. I had a lot of fun surprising my friends and industry professionals with its sound quality, including John Quick of dCS, the British digital company. I could see that Quick was inwardly skeptical of the amp. So I relished all the more hitting the play button on the dCS Vivaldi and watching a slight look of befuddlement cross the lad’s face. It wasn’t the first time I had seen that expression. The Amp II doesn’t meet expectations; it surpasses them.
This little number has not only a surprisingly lithe way with the music, but also an exceptional tonal purity that was particularly evident in the treble region. I much enjoyed listening to the CD A Trumpet Celebration by the Masters of Leipzig, which was recorded by the virtuoso Edward Carroll. Both on solos and with the New York Trumpet ensemble, Carroll’s regal sound came through with clarion authority. There is just something riveting, at least for me, in hearing the piccolo trumpet reproduced with this kind of elegance and lucidity. And don’t underestimate this amplifier’s bass control, either. The timpani whacks on these baroque masterpieces were controlled and detailed, conveyed with a satisfying thump that I have not heard many other amplifiers replicate.
On vocals I enjoyed many of the same qualities. The Amp II had the ability to convey the pathos of Schubert’s lieder, or art songs, on a Hyperion recording I regularly listen to that features the baritone Florian Boesch and the pianist Roger Vignoles. On songs such as “The Wanderer” or “The Gods of Greece,” the Amp II displayed excellent soundstaging, placing the piano firmly in the rear and Boesch front and center without any sense of wavering. The resonance of the piano and the lingering decay of the notes were finely rendered, a tribute not merely to the sheer power of the amplifier but also to the thoughtfulness with which it was voiced.
No, I never had the sense that the Amp II was a purely mechanical component, or a straight wire with gain. To the best of my knowledge, such a piece of equipment does not exist. Instead, what I sensed was an intelligent designer—an engineer who was interested in recreating the musical gestalt, for lack of a better word, as best he could. Put otherwise, this Teutonic creation is not a sterile exercise in trying to convince the listener that he or she is listening to the event as it was recorded by conveying a stripped-down or lean sense of the music. Instead, the Amp II is voiced, however slightly, on the warm side but with the aforementioned purity.
If you are a beer aficionado, you will know that in Germany the Reinheitsgebot, or purity law dating from the Middle Ages, prevails, which is to say that there can be no artificial additives to the brew. The Accustic Arts Amp II appears to follow the same principle. This helps to endow it with a nice sense of transparency. On Adam Nussbaum’s new CD The Lead Belly Project, a creative reinterpretation of the folk singer’s legacy, I was smitten by the excellent transient snap on numbers such as Old Riley and Bottle Up and Go. On another CD that I recently acquired, the trumpeter John Raymond’s Real Feels Live No. 2, the Amp II provided the musical goods on some intricate and powerful passages on cuts “Be Still, My Soul.” Once again, the Amp II demonstrated that it was able to sail through complex passages without becoming bogged down or losing the sense of a capacious soundstage. Something occurred on what has become an old standby for me, Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker. I’m still trying to puzzle it all out, the message, or, to put it more precisely, wisdom, that this artistic sage from Montreal was trying to convey. The Amp II plumbed the sonic depths on cuts such as “Leaving the Table” and “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”—the bass line was deep and visceral. The acute bass control of the amplifier also came to the fore on a concerto for trumpet by Tomaso Albinoni in D major on a CD on the Sony label, featuring the Hungarian trumpeter Gábor Boldoczki, in which the violoncello seemed to throb with urgent vitality.
I’d be engaging in a stretcher, as Huck Finn likes to put, if I didn’t confess to indulging in playing some CDs and LPs by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd at what might be safely termed robust levels. Pushed to these volumes when driving the Wilson Audio WAMMs, the amp didn’t falter but I did pick up on a hint of fatigue. Driven to reasonable SPLs, I never experienced any sense of the Amp II faltering. Rather, it offered a wealth of tonal colors and detail that made it a delight to listen to for hours on end.
When time came to part with the amp, I did so not with a heavy heart—my far more expensive Ypsilon Hyperion monoblock amplifiers are superior, which is what you would expect—but with respect and admiration for a musical amplifier that is punching beyond its weight class. This Amp II is a classic example of what Germany has become the envy of the world for—its Mittelstand, or medium-sized industry, that produces reliable and high-quality products. For anyone seeking a reasonably priced, as the high-end goes, amplifier, the Accustic Arts offers an extremely enticing design.
Specs & Pricing
Output power: 275Wpc into 8 ohms, 450Wpc into 2 ohms, 675Wpc into 2 ohms (0.1% THD)
Input impedance: 20k ohms balanced, 100k ohms unbalanced
Crosstalk: >109dB at 1kHz
Signal-to-noise-ratio: -103dBA (ref. 6.325 V)
Dimensions: 19" x 13.8" x 17"
Weight: 121 lbs.
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